Bullied Students Have No Good Options

A kid in Pennsylvania’s being treated like an offender for getting video footage of his bullies:

A 15-year old boy with ADHD, comprehension delay disorder, and an anxiety disorder recorded classmates bullying him in school. But instead of reprimanding the tormentors, school officials targeted the boy for wiretapping — and he was later convicted of disorderly conduct by a district judge.

Using an iPad, a student at South Fayette High School in Pennsylvania whose name is undisclosed, recorded a seven minute video of his peers trying to harass him. In the recording, two other students discuss pulling the victim’s pants down, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. And a loud noise is heard further into the recording, after which a student said, “I was just trying to scare him.”

According to the victim, being bullied is a daily occurrence. Speaking to South Fayette District Judge Maureen McGraw-Desmet, he explained, “This wasn’t just a one-time thing. This always happens every day in that class.” He revealed that he used the iPad to expose what was happening to him. “Because I always felt like it wasn’t me being heard,” the boy told McGraw-Dismet.

The high school staff knew about the bullying prior to the iPad incident. Assistant Principal Aaron Skrbin testified that Shea Love, the victim’s mother, previously voiced concerns about the tormentors. Last October, she approached the school when a classmate targeted the victim with spitwads — but Skrbin did not “[classify] that as bullying.”

When school officials learned about the recording, Principal Scott Milburn contacted local police on February 12, for what he considered a “wiretapping incident.” After approaching the boy for questioning, South Fayette Lieutenant Robert Kurta told him to dispose of the recording, and charged him with disorderly conduct. In Pennsylvania, the low-level crime is known as a “summary offense,” and does not typically result in jail time for juveniles. Nonetheless, they can stay on a juvenile’s criminal record. McGraw-Desmet later upheld the charges, fining the student “a minimum of $25.” The 15-year old was also ordered to pay court costs. Love is currently trying to get the decision reversed.

I think it’s rather strange that they’re labeling this a “wiretapping incident,” but from the angle of the principal trying to avoid criminal liability, he does have reason for concern. It is illegal in PA to record someone without their consent. I’m sure the kid didn’t know that, however, and surely there were better ways of handling the situation.

The boy in question is ultimately being punished for his school’s inability (or refusal) to respond constructively to bullying. He and his mother tried to tell the school administration about the patterns of bullying behavior, and the school did not take them seriously. They left this vulnerable, special-needs boy to twist in the wind, and he took matters into his own hands. He behaved in a way that pre-supposed the administrators would finally take action if they saw concrete evidence of bullying behavior directed at him.

Instead, they took action against the bullying victim and continued to give the bullies space to do what they want.

It’s additionally revealing that the school decided to focus on the victim doing something unlawful, because many of the behaviors that we recognize as “bullying” when they happen between minor children at school tend to be treated as “criminal offenses” when they take place between adults outside of an educational setting. Pulling the boy’s pants down without his consent? That’s assault. “Just trying to scare him”? That’s menacing. Kids make other kids’ lives miserable every day and face no consequences for it because school staff put their heads in the sand.

(Note: I do not think it’s appropriate for schools to turn students over to law enforcement for bullying behaviors. I think these matters should be handled within the school. If the offending students do not respond to disciplinary measures, except perhaps by escalating, then it’s arguably appropriate for the police to get involved. Initially, though, it should be handled as an in-school disciplinary matter. The problem is that this school, along with most other public schools around the country, isn’t doing anything about bullying.)

But recording assault and menacing on video? That’s a matter for the police, says the principal. Mr. Milburn has no empathy for a kid who’s under attack every day. Lt. Kurta and Judge McGraw-Desmet also have no empathy. They are uninterested in protecting the safety and dignity of civilians in their jurisdiction. They care about the status quo.

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Alyson the Incorrigible of House Miers; High Priestess of Sparkly Fractal Flames; Summoner of Creative Insults; Wrangler of Adverbs, Semicolons and Conditional Clauses; Bane of Euphemisms; Mixer of Genres; and Mother of Witches.